“I’ll hurt my voice.” “I’ll be labeled a chorister.” “I’ll lose focus on my solo career.” These are just a few assumptions many singers make when they cross chorus work off their list of options. These assumptions may be true for some people some of the time, but like any assumptions, it’s a good idea to hold them up to the light of day and see if they are indeed true. Let’s take them one at a time.
‘I’ll hurt my voice’
I know people who overwork their voices by taking on too much work. On one occasion, one of my fellow soloists was a woman from a professional opera chorus. She was very nice and obviously talented. On the evenings I performed an oratorio job with her, however, her voice was simply worn out from hours at a chorus rehearsal. I don’t know if it was the nature of singing in the chorus that strained her voice or simply the number of hours she was putting in. It seemed to me in that case to be an issue of quantity and not quality, and it seemed to me that the same rules apply for choral as for solo singing: Don’t take on more than you can handle. Singing in a chorus, however, does come with some vocal sand traps you should avoid, which I discuss later in this article.
‘I’ll be labeled a chorister’
I don’t know of any singers being refused work because they are “labeled a chorister.” I have known people who, because of their participation in a chorus, were on hand to be heard for small solo roles, and in one case even someone who began in the chorus and went on to sing a leading role with a major company. I don’t know the thinking on the administration side (what lurks in the minds of casting directors is forever mysterious), but it seems to me that people in choruses can secure a solo audition more easily than someone of equal experience who is not known to the company, if for no other reason than access. In addition, even if you are “labeled a chorister” in one organization, the professional experience with that group may better prepare you as a soloist for other companies.
‘I’ll lose focus on my goal of a solo career’
This is a potential risk for any activity other than solo work—teaching, day jobs, or having children. It seems to me that losing focus on your goal of a solo career occurs when you lose focus on your goal of a solo career.
With these fears momentarily allayed, let’s look at some of the day-to-day realities of singing in a chorus to see if it might be right for you.
How much work is there and what does it pay?
Chorus America’s survey of choruses for the 2006-07 season lists 204 choruses who replied to its survey. Forty-one are categorized as “professional” choirs. Bear in mind that professional in this case means paid, but not necessarily paid union (AGMA) scale. (AGMA lists more than 30 opera companies and symphony choruses as signatories.) Among the Chorus America respondents, the median number of performances per season is eight, and the average choir size is 54. Bearing in mind that some of these choruses are not entirely professional, rehearsal fees range from $15 to $75 and performance fees from $25 to $77. So far, no choristers are getting rich.
AGMA was not able to provide exact numbers of choristers and hours worked, but among the AGMA signatories, which include every major opera company in the country, a sampling of fees range from $15 an hour and $136 per performance at Arizona Opera to the Met’s almost $70 an hour for rehearsal and $288 for performance. (These numbers are based on contracts available from AGMA for the 2005-06 season.)
AGMA contracts also cover overtime pay, per diems for out-of-town performances, and even extra pay for wearing body makeup and “carrying heavy objects.” These hourly and performance rates are generally for extra chorus members. Full-time “regular chorus” members make a weekly fee that in the larger houses (San Francisco, Chicago, and the Met) begins at about $1,200 a week and goes up with seniority. These tenured positions come with full benefits, such as health insurance and disability.
Before you get too excited, look at these numbers. The Met’s AGMA contract calls for a minimum of 80 choristers guaranteed 52 weeks of employment. If you’re like me, you can probably think of 80 singers right now who would jump at such a job. San Francisco’s contract calls for no fewer than 48 tenured regular choristers. All in all, we’re speaking of far less than 2,000 jobs in the entire country, most of them part time.
Sometimes people think of chorus work as an easier, less competitive option, but if you look at the number of jobs available in the country and compare that to the number of conservatory graduates, you can see that the competition for these jobs is extremely high. If they don’t land one of these plum assignments with a major opera company, many choral singers piece together a season with work as extra chorus with an opera company, symphony chorus work, and work with smaller, professional (though not union) groups, such as the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, the Carmel and Oregon Bach Festival choirs, VocalEssence, the Phoenix Chorale, the Handel and Haydn Society (Boston), the Houston Chamber Choir, American Bach Soloists in San Francisco, Conspirare in Austin, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and many more. Whether singers can make a living from such work depends on piecing together work from various groups and building a reputation as excellent and reliable. (See sidebar interview with Elspeth Franks, p. 41.)
Other Fringe Benefits to Choral Work
In addition to possible financial benefits, many singers appreciate the greater sense of community singing they experience in a chorus or choruses in one city than there would be as a soloist on the road. This is no small consideration for singers raising a family or wanting to stay put for personal reasons. Singing with the same group of people over years can be like being a part of a family, one that shares your love of singing.
One of the biggest pluses of singing with an opera chorus or a symphony chorus is working with a higher level of conductor and in a more professional environment than might currently be possible for you as a soloist. Watching great conductors and soloists up close is the ideal learning environment for a singer of any aspiration. If you want to move up a step in terms of the size and quality of the companies you work for, the quickest way to do that may be to sing with a chorus in an organization of that caliber. Even if you decide after a season that it’s not for you, you’ll have a better, more realistic sense of what’s required if you want to work at that level.
Vocally, I have seen certain habits develop among students of mine who do a lot of choral singing. They can have a kind of overemphasis of entrances (the kind that telegraphs to the conductor, “It wasn’t me who came in late!”) that isn’t optimal for legato. On occasion this must be trained out of singers.
It is always challenging to sing in environments where it is hard to hear yourself without pushing. Ultimately, it comes down to being a smart singer and knowing your own technique. You have to be tuned into your body and your voice and what you’re feeling, not just how it sounds. You need to know how to hold back when you’re tired, how to avoid oversinging, and how to avoid overbooking yourself—all the common sense rules of good singing. Conversely, soloists may have to adjust as they learn how to blend. I think of the character Cassie in A Chorus Line, who has done so much solo dancing that she has a bit of adjusting to do not to cock her head and stand out in the line.
Finally, I think it comes down to something Elspeth Franks said in our interview (see sidebar): Ultimately it is a question of “Do I want to be singing?” If you love to sing and you want to be paid for it, find a professional chorus and go for it.
Sometimes the best intentions of our teachers don’t prepare us for reality. I remember being at conservatory and listening to all the piano majors. Many of them received no training in accompanying or anything other than solo performance. I couldn’t imagine that all those pianists were going to leave school and hit the road touring as soloists.
If you do the math it’s obvious that the same is true for singers. However much we like to think of ourselves as the prima donna, in the day-to-day reality of professional singers, whether you do solo or chorus work is not an “either/or” proposition. This is not necessarily cause for dismay. Most of the singers I know who sing professionally in choruses also do solo work and continue to study and grow as artists.
I remember being in my high school chorus and loving it more than anything. Of course I wanted the solos, but if you had asked me if I might quit the chorus if I didn’t get a solo, I’d have thought you were nuts. Quit the chorus? That’s where the singing is!